Feature: Kes author Barry at the coalface of television drama
When Barnsley-born author Barry Hines died this year he left a treasure trove of work that shaped the image of South Yorkshire and its people.
Hines will be remembered always for the much- loved film Kes, directed by Ken Loach.
But there is much more to be discovered about this unassuming local lad.
His forgotten gem The Price of Coal is enjoying a mini revival.
This 1977 TV film was shot 40 years ago in the long hot summer of 1976 at the then recently abandoned Thorpe Hesley colliery, near Rotherham.
It is a drama drenched in the realities of the South Yorkshire coalfield, which had recently witnessed the tragedy at Houghton Main colliery in Barnsley in which five miners were killed when an underground explosion ripped through the pit.
Hines had been working on a comedy, based on a real-life Royal visit to Rotherham’s Silverwood pit. BBC producer Tony Garnett liked the humour and was interested in getting the piece screened in the prime time Play for Today slot. He had Loach once again lined up to bring Hines’ characters to the screen using his unique ‘realist’ approach.
But Garnett also felt that the work needed something more than the farcical preparations mocked by miners, objecting to the fictional Milton colliery being ‘tarted up’ for the sake of Royalty.
The result was a second part, Back to Reality, written by Hines during the winter of 1975-6, depicting a pit disaster. That autumn had seen the recently formed Health and Safety Executive’s investigation into the causes of the explosion at Houghton Main.
The hearing was conducted in Barnsley, and many of the safety recommendations made by Arthur Scargill, then President of Yorkshire National Union of Mineworkers, were echoed by the Inspector in his findings.
So, it was an opportune moment for Hines to raise the question of ‘the price of coal’.
Scargill, had called for £100 a week for underground workers at the NUM’s 1975 Scarborough conference in the face of the Labour Government’s attempt to hold down wages as the economy slumped.
Miners were in no mood to take the incomes policy medicine, and so an ‘incentive’ scheme was proposed to allow their wages to rise in line with productivity. Scargill and the Yorkshire miners’ leaders warned that this divisive bonus system would ‘set pit against pit and man against man’. As Hines foresaw, these divisions came to the fore in the 1984-5 strike against pit closures.
Hines’ drama, screened in 1977 to coincide with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, used comedy and tragedy to put miners’ historic dilemma between production and safety squarely into the nation’s living rooms. Play for Today regularly commanded audiences of millions and had a reputation for portraying controversial topics.
At the time, criticism of the monarchy was largely frowned upon and there was a furore whipped up in the national press around the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen punk anthem, released that year.
Bobby Knutt, then a stalwart comedian on the Sheffield club scene, found himself in a lead role as militant miner Syd Storey.
Knutty, who turned 70 last year, recalled how he first met Loach.
Speaking soon after filming the latest ITV series of Benidorm – in which he plays mischievous rogue Eddie Dawson – he said: “The Price of Coal was my big break. I had a Sunday morning slot on Radio Sheffield and Ken Loach had phoned asking if there were any local comedians who fancied a turn at acting.
“I went to an audition at the old Victoria Station Hotel in Sheffield. This was early 1976 and, unknown to me, Rita May, who was a club singer in Sheffield, was there too. I was expecting to be given a script but Ken just had me and Rita improvising a scene as a married couple.
“We staged this furious row, all about her spending too much money on stuff out of the catalogue. She had an answer for everything I threw at her. It developed into a right ding-dong and Loach must have liked it because we got the lead parts.
“Perhaps at the time I didn’t realise what had dropped into my lap. I’d seen Kes, and loved the film – I thought it was wonderful. But now here I was working with an internationally acclaimed film director and I’d never acted before.”
Knutty’s character got some of the best comic lines from Hines’ script, but Loach, as is his trademark, encouraged the actors to “ad lib” – something that Bobby was more than happy to do.
“I was never really a joke-telling type of comedian,” said Knutty. “I had routines that featured characters, and I used lots of mimicry, so it felt like the part was made for me. My character was a bit to the left of Lenin you might say in his politics, but that was all because he wanted the best for his family and fellow workers. I just seemed to take to the role.
“One scene that sticks out is a confrontation in the snooker room about the Royal visit. There was this agent called Tommy Edwards who’d turned up to audition a couple of his acts. Ken rejected them and poached Tommy himself instead.
“He plays a soft type of union man, just the opposite of Syd and there was something about Tommy that was guaranteed to wind you up. He had a sort of weasel way about him even though he was a nice bloke. We’d shot this snooker scene many times over and I think I just genuinely lost my rag with him because he kept forgetting his lines.
“We ended up squaring up to one another, nose to nose, and it’s a great scene which really captures the passion of the moment.
“I learned so much from being given the freedom to discover my acting abilities and, like Rita, I think I’ve gone on to prove that it wasn’t just a fluke when I landed the part. “
The Price of Coal was recently screened at a memorial event for Barry Hines staged by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and today students at the University of Sheffield study Hines’ work, which is seen as having distinctive regional importance.
Dave Forrest, who lectures in film studies at the university, said: “Our students have embraced Hines with real enthusiasm and I’ve been very impressed with the way in which they’ve offered bold new perspectives on his many works for the page and screen – Hines’s persistent interest in social class and the politics of the region have proved particularly engaging.”
The Hines archives, which bring together all the writer’s papers, are lodged at the university and a scholarship was recently created both to look in more depth at his distinctive literary contribution, but also to publicise his wider work to a new generation.
It may be that Barry Hines will be forever known for Kes, but it was coal and community that shaped his character.
It was for working people in these communities that he spoke with humour, passion and conviction, a kind of humane militancy, as personified by Syd Storey in The Price of Coal.